The term “empowerment” rose to prominence in the late 1980s and saw considerable use through the 1990s in conjunction with the total quality management (TQM) movement. Its use has been so widespread that the term itself has become a buzzword. We’re told repeatedly that we must empower employees to enable them to make their best possible contributions to organizational success; we’re told this as though it were something new, some late-twentieth-century discovery.
The verb “empower” contains its own simple definition: to give power to. A look into any dictionary or thesaurus reveals that one of the several synonyms for “empowerment” is “delegation.” A similar look at “delegation” shows “empowerment” as a synonym. Delegation and empowerment have essentially the same meaning, yet many present day experts tell us: Don’t just delegate to employees–empower them.
Although empowerment may be described in a variety of ways, its essence remains giving employees control of their jobs and letting them make their own decisions and solve their own problems. Therefore, there’s no difference between empowerment and proper delegation. Therein lies the problem; delegation has been so widely misused and abused that the term itself has become hopelessly tarnished. The conscientious delegating manager—or honest empowering manager—clearly defines employees’ limits and keeps hands off as long as they operate within these limits and deliver the expected results.